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Reviews: NKU Shines With "One in a Lifetime"; Shaw's Joan of Arc Tale Solid Downtown

Northern Kentucky University's acting ensemble is looking good and so is the entire revival of Kaufman and Hart’s Broadway satire about going Hollywood, Once in a Lifetime, continuing through February 28.

The 1930 comedy, with 12 speaking roles and a supporting cast of 18 is the kind of play that only universities can afford to produce these days. Director Mike King gets big credit for leading a small army of performers, creative staff and crew to victory.

Silent films are becoming talkies when three out-of-work vaudevillians arrive from New York to get in on the action – not on screen. They plan to start an ‘elocution’ school. (Lost in the mists of time is how many silent stars never worked again because – well, there were lots of incomprehensible accents, from Brooklyn to Budapest, and equally bad timbre.)

As the trio at the center of the action, Andy Burns, Sophia Dewald, and Cody Oppel nail the archetypes. Burns is the insouciant, fast-talking pitchman; Dewald is the smart and self-aware gal who loves him and runs the school; Oppel is the sweet dim bulb who is a walking disaster, but somehow when he speaks, all Hollywood listens. Even when he buys hundreds of airplanes for no apparent reason.

Stand-outs include Tony Newton as a director of the Erich von Stroheim mold (complete with riding crop), Andrew Bishop as the studio head who drives everybody crazy, and Andrew Wiemann as a screenwriter being driven crazy.

The design all works together: scenic by Ron Shaw, what seem like a zillion costumes by Katharine Koehler, lighting by Terry Powell, and sound by Lydia Tobler to give us the world which we know best from the screwball comedies of the Thirties.

There is no getting around that life was slower 80 some years ago than it is now, and the script gets off to a slow start by 21st century standards. Happily the production’s energy never flags, holding the interest of a contemporary audience through the creakier parts of the script.

Once in a Lifetime, through Feb. 28. Northern Kentucky University, Corbett Theatre, Fine Arts Center, Highland Heights. Tickets $14, seniors $11, students $8. 859-572-5464

Saint Joan, Diogenes Theatre Company, Aronoff Center

What a joy, to spend an evening with George Bernard Shaw.

Have you noticed that a lot of what we’re subjected to, especially in this presidential campaign season, is like being pummeled by potty-mouthed junior high school boys?

And that when it comes to theater in a mid-sized region like ours, too often we settle for smarty-pants rather than smart? (Speaking of Revolutionists, this is the revolution I want. Back to art that demands our minds and hearts.)

That’s George Bernard Shaw, profound and witty as he considers the life, death and after-life of Joan of Arc and the politics that swirled around her in both France and England and decided her fate. Which is not to say this is a story filled with villains. Life is more complex than that. It is filled with practicalities.

Diogenes continues to forge a path of thoughtful, ambitious theater on a very small production budget, once management has commendably paid actors a reasonable salary (one assumes this is why there are too few of them) and rent for its home in the Aronoff’s Fifth Third Theater.

Cincinnati Shakespeare veterans are regularly on (and off) stage for Diogenes. In St. Joan, longtime CSC player Sara Clark takes the title role and Geoffrey Barnes and Bill Chace are among the very small supporting cast – much too small for this epic tale.

Lindsey Mercer has been making a real impact around town with a series of successes on the small pro scene, and her great success here is making sure the actors know how to tell the story. Her staging is, appropriately, set out like a cross with the audience filling in the surrounding space for an intimate, in-the-round experience.

This isn’t a heart-wrenching or breathtaking St. Joan, with everyone but Clark forced to play “Who am I this time?” with the audience as they each juggle multiple roles in mostly basic black, uninformative costume pieces, made even more inexplicable by a mash of periods. Clark comes on at one point looking like an officer in Napoleon’s army – of course the wrong era but far worse, alien to Joan’s legend as the simple and devout Maid of Orleans.

It’s impossible for anyone to shine, but everyone is solid. Rory Sheridan and Ensemble acting intern alums Jared Earland and Patrick Phillips have no trouble keeping up with Cincy Shakes’ Equity players.

Happily it takes more than a low budget to bring down Shaw – who does shine, thanks to Mercer and her ensemble, who are clearly committed to making his great voice heard.

Saint Joan, through March 5. Diogenes Theatre Company, Fifth Third Bank Theater, Aronoff Center for the Arts, Seventh and Main, Downtown Cincinnati. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $29 plus ticketing fee.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
Photo: Sara Clark and Jared Earland in St. Joan (by Mikki Schaffner)